An Olympic downer: Bobbin' on the noggin is no way to get ahead


LA PLAGNE, France -- There are bad days and there are very bad days, and let's go right to the bottom: sliding three-fourths of a mile down a mountain of ice at 50 mph, with a 400-pound sled on your head.

A very bad day.

"Basically," John Amabile said, "it was like being trapped in a plane going down."

Everyone else saw it on television. He was inside the sled.

"My shoulder was riding along the ice, and I could start to feel my uniform and skin burning," he said yesterday. "It took a few seconds for the shock of what was happening to wear off, and then I realized that my arm basically was on fire."

A very bad day. But how about this epilogue: Amabile and his brakeman, Jorge Bonnet, climbed back into their Puerto Rico II sled yesterday and made their final two runs in the Olympic two-man bobsled. Even though Bonnet's right knee was swollen and bloody.

"Your basic Olympic spirit thing," Amabile said. "We didn't want to quit. Jorge is hurting.

He basically can't run. But we did it. We finished."

That was the least of their concerns Saturday when they began tipping over on the high bank of Turn 6, near the top of the course. It was the second of their two first-day runs. The first had gone poorly. They wanted to do better.

"We decided just to explode," Amabile said. "We're competitive people with good athletic backgrounds. We had the oldest sled in the competition. We'd borrowed it from New Zealand. It was slowing us down. We decided we just had to do something to offset it. So we decided just to take risks and go as fast as we could."

No, they weren't just Jamaica-bobs out for some Olympic thrill-seeking. Amabile, a 29-year-old optometrist, was an All-America javelin thrower at the University of Florida. Bonnet, a 26-year-old computer salesman from San Juan, was an Olympian in judo eight years ago. They are superb athletes, broad and muscled, who train in Lake Placid and have bobbed together since 1990, finishing as high as seventh in international competitions.

They'd made some 30 runs down the La Plagne course between practices and races. "And we'd never had any trouble on Turn 6," Amabile said. "But I was trying not to steer so we could go faster, and we just got up too high on the turn, and we lost our momentum and stopped. And when you stop, you drop and tip over."

Going 50 mph. A very bad day.

The bobbers' credo says to grab the inside railing and hold on once you capsize. "You can really get messed up bouncing around in there if you're not holding onto something," Amabile said. "We were completely upside down. It could have been a disaster."

Indeed, especially considering that they had raced with old, cracked helmets until last week, when they began using new ones provided by a sponsor. Talk about a close call: Amabile's head got caught outside the sled and smacked against the ice, but didn't get nicked. He wound up with just minor burns. Bonnet, lying below Amabile closer to the ice, got the worst of it.

"All his weight was on my leg and he's 200-something pounds, so that hurt," Bonnet said. "I just closed my eyes. I didn't know where I was. I just heard the people screaming. When I opened my eyes along the way, I could see them all upside down. See their teeth."

Their biggest problem was that the crash had occurred high on the course, so they just kept sliding and sliding and sliding. Sixty-five seconds in all. Seemed like years to Bonnet.

"I started losing the strength in my hands from holding on tight," he said, "and I said, 'God, please stop this sled, I can't hold on much longer.' I said, 'God, if you don't stop this sled soon, this is it for me.' "

Amabile knew his teammate was in trouble.

"It was just such a long time," Amabile said. "Halfway down, I tried to grab him and pull him in closer. I was yelling at him, 'Are you OK? Are you OK?' But there was too much noise. This horrible grinding noise. It was the ice being ripped by the sled. The worst noise I've ever heard. Jorge just couldn't hear me."

Later, when they talked about what had happened, they discovered they'd had the same thought.

"We both thought we were going so fast that we'd go up and over the bank, hit something and have this big crash," Amabile said. "We were waiting for the big boom, basically. Bracing ourselves for the big one."

But it never came. They just reached the bottom of the course, went up the short hill and stopped. Finally. Medical officials were all over them within seconds. Ambulances arrived. Bonnet was incoherent.

"I was yelling for him, and all I heard was him moaning," Amabile said, "at which point I became very concerned. You're the driver and your brakeman is moaning. That doesn't make you feel too good."

Said Bonnet: "I was dizzy. I didn't know where I was."

They got him out of there and took him to a clinic up the hill, where they rattled everything once and found he basically was OK. The only lasting problem was his right knee, which was a bruised and bloody mess.

The evening was filled with phone calls from slightly hysterical relatives and visits from brotherly bobbers. "I guess the whole world saw it," said team manager Rich Kolko, "and I think half of them called to check in. Things can get out of hand, you know. German television said there'd been brain damage. Crazy stuff like that."

The only real problem was that Bonnet couldn't bend his knee when he awoke yesterday. It was swollen and sore. He needed a half-hour to put on new bandages. He tried to loosen up by running. Until an hour before the race, he was thinking of letting a substitute brakeman replace him.

In the end, Bonnet went ahead and raced, limping along as he pushed the sled at the start. And there was a sweet ending: On the last heat they went faster than three of the 45 other sleds, including that of Prince Albert of Monaco.

"I'm proud we did that," Amabile said. "It sure beat riding down on my head."

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